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You're the Man now dog is the caption on this photograph of Sean Connery and Rob Brown in the film Finding Forrester
figure 1  

 

This is an oft-quoted line from the ostensibly heartwarming film, Finding Forrester, about a friendship between a reclusive old man and a fatherless precocious teenage boy. The line, uttered by William Forrester (Sean Connery), a white one-novel Pulitzer Prize winner, defines his relationship with Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a black working-class teenager, skilled in both words and basketball. Despite the warm autumnal tones of the film and the actors' effective rendering of authentic affection across the lines of age and race, there is a disturbing subtext that belies the veneer these qualities otherwise suggest. The issues of race, sexuality, amorality, dominance, and derogation, commonly evoked by the use of dog idioms and metaphors, are at play.

In the most obvious reading of the line, the word “dog” is used as a term of affection for a male friend, usually by another male. In Black Talk, Geneva Smitherman tells us that the usage is associated not only with African American culture (see Dog (friend)), but also youth. While the term used in these social contexts is an affirming and affectionate one, the suggested origins (as a put-down for black fraternity pledges) are not.reference 1 Add to this the general tendency of dog metaphors to have negative connotations, and it suggests that the affirmative reading should not go unquestioned. A gesture of affection between equally marginalized youth or African Americans, such as “dog” or “niggah,” often reflects the camaraderie of common condition. Usage may be implicitly understood to be ironic and be intended to push back against the process of marginalization. However, when used across the differences of race or generation, especially when used by the person in the dominant position, the same term may have a very different significance. It may, in fact, evoke the earlier demeaning implication and emphasize not camaraderie, but dominance.

“The Man” (or “da Man”) with its implicit capital “M” is also appropriated from youth and black culture. Again, taking the most obvious reading, the meaning is readily derived. Smitherman defines it as referring to “a man of distinction.” Increasingly it may specifically mean top dog or the alpha male.reference 2

1. Smitherman, Geneva. 1994. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Boston: Houghton MIfflin.

 

 

 

 

 

2. Ibid.

Thus, the line about “dog” becoming “the Man” has layers of irony embedded in it. That William (as Jamal calls him throughout the film) uses the term “dog” as a sign of affection for Jamal raises questions about the reciprocity of the friendship and the equality of the two friends. Despite the appearance, especially in the trailer for the film, that William is issuing a paean of praise, the viewer's understanding of their relationship will affect the meaning. If you see the characters as equal, William's use of “dog” may seem paradoxical and cute. However, if you question the reciprocity, it may seem ironic and disturbing. It is possible and even likely that—as with many facets of contemporary U.S. media—your reading will be influenced by your own experiences and the side of difference on which you reside.  

If, as I believe, dog references are primarily used as opportunities for projection of humans' least admirable traits, then the phrase contains an implicit tension between the positive implications of being the Man while simultaneously embodying the negative connotations of being a dog. The tension is heightened because this implied polarity is obscured. In dog metaphors, men and dogs are often presumed to be synonymous (see Dog is to Cat as Man is to Woman) and therefore identical rather than oppositional.

In the same way that we could not take the word “dog” at its first reading, it’s wise to examine the layers of meaning in “the Man” as well. The term can be taken as implicitly ironic in the context of African American usage, since another of Smitherman's definitions is “the white man.”reference 3 In her Glossary of Harlem Slang, and earlier exploration of African American language, Zora Neale Hurston says that the term refers to a “powerful boss” or the law.reference 4 To be the Man, by inference, can also have something to do with being white, as well as in a position of power.

3. Ibid.

4. Hurston, Zora Neale. 2001. Glossary of Harlem Slang. African American Literature Book Club. Accessed Feb 12 2001 from http:// www.aalbc.com/ authors/ harlemslang.htm.

In the film, Jamal departs from his working class neighborhood and school, attends an almost exclusively white institution, dates a white girl, and seeks to emulate exclusively white authors. This last is among the more disturbing aspects of the film. In the opening sequence, Jamal is seen with a stack of books: Joyce, Swift, etc. Not a single one of these texts, or any others mentioned or depicted throughout the film, are by black authors. Why doesn't Jamal read the work of Toni Morrison (who has received a real life Pulitzer, not to mention a Nobel)? Couldn't he be seen with Alice Walker's Color Purple, winner of the National Book Award and, yes, the Pulitzer Prize? Why no references to Ralph Ellison's 1953 National Book Award winner, Invisible Man? Perhaps “You're The Man now” means that Jamal is in fact invisible—as a black man—and has become white or at least no longer black.

In the context of the film and its characters, the line is ironic as well. William Forrester is Hemingway-esque: hard drinking, a man's man, a warrior. The choice in casting alone gives away his true nature, despite the character's age and agoraphobia. Connery is graven in most movie audiences' minds as James Bond. Men of this ilk do not wait to be crowned the Man; they are the types who, in king-of-the-hill fashion, claim it, pushing others brusquely aside. For William to pass the crown in this way carries an implicit assumption that it is still his right and perhaps his duty to name Jamal, “the Man,” not Jamal's right to claim the title.

This dynamic is the central one of the film, and all too familiar to American media audiences, whether they consciously recognize it or not. In media depictions, neither excellence nor equality is a status that an African American can claim for him or herself. If you are black, especially a black man, even if you have all the essentials to excel in both the black and the white world, as Jamal Wallace does, forget it unless you can find a white champion. Even if you act with the utmost integrity at all times, as Jamal Wallace does, you will be called upon to prove that the worst possible construction of your actions is unfounded. In fact, you really had better get a white man to provide your alibi as—ultimately—William does for Jamal.

This reading can easily be inferred by examination of the narrative. Despite outstanding test scores and a demonstrated breadth of knowledge of American and English literature Jamal's English teacher, Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham), assumes that Mr. Wallace, as he calls him, cannot be as good writer as the work he is submitting indicates. After all Jamal is black, from the Bronx, and was recruited to the school for the purpose of leading the basketball team to a championship. Crawford is a familiar stereotype, a frustrated writer himself and a veritable foaming-at-the-mouth bigot, in an effete intellectual kind of way.

Meanwhile the earnest Jamal, who yearns to write as well as he shoots hoops, enters the tutelage of the renowned Pulitzer Prize winning William Forrester. Naturally, his writing, once merely good, goes off the charts in terms of quality, feeding Crawford's suspicions. In a key plot development William makes use of a technique to assist Jamal in getting past one of the common obstacles for a writer: the blank first page. William offers the title and opening paragraph of an essay he had written as a starting point for one of Jamal's writing projects. We see Jamal working and reworking this piece, which is the point in the film at which William utters the famous line.

Without telling William, Jamal turns in the resulting essay as his entry in the annual writing contest, not knowing that that the borrowed original title and opening paragraph had already seen print. Professor Crawford discovers William's published essay (in the New Yorker, of course) and gleefully charges Jamal with plagiarism. Since William has asked Jamal not to reveal their friendship, or even, it sometimes seems, William's existence, Jamal keeps his mouth shut to protect his friend and appears destined to have his integrity and hard work repaid with expulsion from school.

Jamal is on especially thin ice since he is dating a white girl, the daughter of the chairman of the school's board of trustees. True to the stereotyped characters in this film, the father seems less than thrilled with his daughter's choice in men. Only Jamal's status as the star basketball player stays the hand of the Man, er, that is, the authorities. On the day that the writing contest winner is to be announced, there is a showdown in which William comes in and lays to rest any question of who the top dog is. He puts Crawford in his place, declares his affection for Jamal, and implicitly makes public the private declaration that Jamal is “the man now,” at least as far as writing is concerned. He reads another essay that Jamal wrote which then wins the contest by acclamation. The demise of the presumptuous and rudely bigoted Professor Crawford is clearly intended to provide a cathartic sense of justice done and racism defeated

In the other half of the plot development, we see touching scenes of Jamal taking William out of his house for the first time in decades and sparring with him while they watch Jeopardy on television. William helps Jamal with his writing and in slaying the dragon of Professor Crawford; Jamal helps William reengage the world, think about writing again and move past his misery over the loss of his brother. They each provide the needed family for the other.

Tying it altogether is the topic of Jamal's prize-winning essay: “On Family.” While only a snippet of the essay is shared with the film-going audience, we get enough to know that it is a reflection on metaphorical and actual family. The message is clear: in a metaphorical sense, Jamal has found his absent father in William. While he does not reject his actual family, his mother and brother, Terrell (Busta Rhymes), they are moved to the margin, apparently because they cannot fulfill Jamal's spiritual and literary needs. The irony of this is that Busta Rhymes, a gifted writer and rapper in his own right, embodies an African American writing tradition which Jamal has rejected, at least by implication. In Finding Forrester, the character played by Rhymes, Terrell, is not the Man; he is a parking lot attendant with vague and apparently hopeless aspirations for fame as a rap performer. It would be difficult for viewers to conclude anything but that the canon that Terrell/Busta represents does not merit the distinction that the one in which William's work participates is accorded.

Who's Family?
Sean Connery
figure 2
Rob Brown
figure 3
Busta Rhymes
figure 4
 

The final scenes come a year later with word of William's death and his final bequest to Jamal: the invitation to write the introduction to his now-complete second novel. With this imprimatur and his victory in the writing contest, it’s easy to imagine that Jamal will be looking at university writing programs where his applications might be welcomed as proof of a budding writer and scholar—but only if you had not been paying attention. Jamal is being courted all right: by basketball teams who are offering that most cliché avenue to success for a young black man: athletic stardom. While Jamal is clearly “the Man” around campus, there is no sign anywhere of The Girl he was dating the year before. Perhaps that would have been just too much. After all, black men, like dogs, are mistakenly, but commonly, stereotyped as sexually uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Or perhaps it's simply, as Busta Rhymes says in his most poignant speech of the film, “They only let you get but so far.”reference 5

While as a throwaway line, “You're the Man now dog” remains cute and paradoxical, the audience shouldn’t be lulled into accepting the simplistic catharsis offered by the film. Indeed it might be more accurate to invert the line, since, in the end, Jamal appears to remain a dog granted status as a man, rather than a man among men.

5. Van Sant, Gus. M. Rich, writer. 2000. Finding Forrester. C. Pictures. VHS 136 minutes.

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About the illustrations: Figures 1 and 3 are publicity photographs from the film Finding Forrester. Figure 2 is Sean Connery as 007; the image came from a fan site. Figure 4 is Busta Rhymes as Rasaan in Shaft.

These images are excerpted from film publicity photographs, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publishers or the creator of the works depicted. I believe that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of posters to provide critical commentary on the film in question or of the images themselves qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Any other uses of this image may be copyright infringement.

see also: dog (friend); dog (man) Last updated: July 10, 2008
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